A Certain Allegiance

 
  The sun flattened into a dull copper-hued ellipse, like a baker's failure. Zhang Po-Lan watched the sunset from the terrace trying to find a moment of refuge or perhaps clarity, but just like the sky across the sea his thoughts were foggy and darkening. Things were not going well, that much was certain, but the worst thing was not the treacheries, disinformation and attacks but being ignorant - ignorant of what had happened, what was going on, who to trust and who to guard against, what to do next. Just a week ago his life had been mainly routine, now he was fighting a war of information against an enemy he did not know. Not knowing one's enemy - that is a sure recipe for failure he glumly thought.

"Mr. Shu Ping-Yee is here. Do you wish to review him?" his secretary called. A brief flicker of hope played across Po-Lan's inner skies. Ping-Yee might have the answers. Or at least some clues. "Let him in, the usual check."

It took a while to scan and check Ping-Yee for hidden weapons or other dangerous surprises (best not to take any chances, especially after the recent rash of unexplainable treacheries), which gave Po-Lan the time to build up at least a polite front of cheer and hospitality. He ordered a light evening meal to the terrace, guessing that the agent would be slightly hungry after the flight from Hao Chen. 

"I am deeply grateful that my benefactor would see me."

"Your presence here, my friend, brings me great happiness." Po-Lan actually felt a bit better when he saw Ping-Yee. Despite the obvious tiredness of the agent, his eyes where bright and his steps much more surer than they had been last time they saw each other. It was almost like he had grown a bit during his mission. Or maybe, a paranoid whisper suggested, he has joined Them. 

They spent some time on small talk, but neither man showed great enthusiasm for politeness. The discussion quickly moved into current events. The news were at once promising and unsettling; even more unexplained or worrying news, but some tantalising hints that the network was finally catching up with whoever or whatever the enemy was. Maybe an alliance between the Hsien and the criminal networks, exploiting blackmail and infowar to strike at the government? Ping-Yee had little substantial evidence, but plenty of facts to show. As the night slowly fell and the Xao flowers began to shine gently, the young agent thanked his mentor profusely for the chance of proving himself and supporting the true cause, and left. Po-Lan sat in the darkness watching the reflections of the terraforming platforms in the sea, wondering.


As Po-Lan woke up, he felt strangely certain. He did his traditional callisthenics, wondering about his newfound feeling of certainty. What was there to be certain of, in this world of murky networks and closly spun lies? He did not know, but he felt certain that there was something to be certain of. Today, his heart promised, today you will know what is going on and know what to do. 

"Mr. Shu Ping-Yee left a priority 1 message for you". 

"Show me." Priority 1? What had happened? That level required the use of the one-time pads he had only given his people for the most essential, most dangerous communications. He quickly went over to the nearest active wall, where the mosaic turned into the expectant face of Ping-Yee. 

He ignored politeness and asked "What is it?"

Ping-Yee looked tense and concentrated, as if this was some kind of test, some essential exam to pass. "Honourable benefactor, I hope you have found Li."

"Li? The law?" Confucian ethics? But deep inside him something stirred. The Li. It feltů right.

"The thing within us. Our true loyalty."

"Our loyalty is to the cause." But as he said the formula, he felt something new, something he had not felt before or at least not as strongly. Yes, he felt loyalty. But not to the cause, to something else. To the Li?

"Do you feel it, my wise mentor? Our true common cause." Ping-Yee looked at him with his bright eyes in a way that would otherwise had been highly impolite but now stirred something in him. The True Cause. 

"What is this cause, Ping-Yee. And are there others serving it?"

Ping-Yee hesitated a fraction of a second. This was the pivotal moment, the moment where nothing but the truth would work. Had his mentor not been converted, the next minutes would be a story of betrayal and violence.

"The Li is the cause, but it is also loyalty itself. We are loyal to the Li, that is, everybody carrying the Li in their hearts and minds. Li binds us together. It doesn't have to remove the old obligations, it just becomes our highest allegiance. It is the Li that is taking over Penglai."

Po-Lan felt awed. Not frightened, not confused, not even happy about the revelation. He was awed by the size of what was happening. His quick mind saw the patterns and put them together. Loyalty to loyalty itself. A self-perpetuating meme of zealous devotion. Protégés, friends and subordinates converting their superiors, who in turn went to their superiors. A world filled with certainty and fidelity.

Ping-Yee bowed his head. "Please forgive me the multiple impositions I have committed against you, my honourable educator and patron, but they were done to bring you this great gift, the gift of the Li. Forgive me, I will always be your most loyal subordinate."